Former vaccine safety advocate Alan Leshner on fighting off a falling public’s mistrust of the vaccine industry

What seems to have emerged as an inevitable feature of today’s political landscape is the anger and upset associated with the child vaccination debate.

It is very possible that the panicky response to “some baby not getting vaccinated” by the public relations office of the American Journal of Public Health (the article itself is not especially well written, and definitely does not advance the ball) was prompted by over-reaction to the hysterical response of the editor-in-chief of National Geographic.

It is also possible that there is some truth to what Lisa Croen implied (the piece isn’t worth the time to read) in her piece the other day in Bloomberg Businessweek that there is something in the soup about public health where scientists are concerned, as people have become more distrustful of their scientific colleagues.

The problem with the public discussion of this is it creates a not uninteresting class warfare by which children who are obese receive near-universal sympathy and liberals who deplore inequality a disproportionate amount of scorn. But it also creates a context for shifting public attitudes against a vaccine safety advocacy movement that doesn’t really have any scientific basis.

I do think the short answer is it is important to steer the discussion in a different direction.


There is no doubt that the anti-vaccine movement that is such a devastating feature of public health discourse today has generated a set of alarming vaccination rates. But that doesn’t take away from the legitimate questions about who pays the price for that. It also doesn’t wipe away the problems of parental rejection of vaccines—and the authority and trust they signify—that the movement presents as an opportunity.


What is at work here are some adults who are convinced they’re doing the best thing for their children, they aren’t asking very difficult questions and aren’t exercising either logic or discretion. They are willing to believe what they want to believe about vaccinations. The pediatricians are doing a good job of having these discussions with the parents. The whole health care system is focusing on these parents, but the problem is these parents don’t really want to hear what’s being said to them.


I call this my 10-Point Plan for Vaccinating America: 10 things that we could be doing today that would not only create easier access to preventative medicine, but make it attractive to the parents who are currently not on board; helping them understand that the discourse is far from over and that it is never too late for them to keep their children up to date with vaccines; and making it easier for the physicians and public health officials to have real and informed conversations with parents and educate them to come off the fence and get vaccinated.

Read the full analysis: Bruce Arthur on why pro-vaccination experts are concerned by the anti-vaxx movement.

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